An impeccably mounted survey of voices from across the spectrum of African-American accomplishment, the first installment of “The Black List” is a rich and revealing work of portraiture. In this sparkling collection of interviews conducted by former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell and assembled by helmer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, prominent athletes, authors, actors, musicians, politicians and many others recount their personal journeys with bracing warmth, eloquence and candor. A prime HBO acquisition at Sundance, classy project has endless sequel potential and will enjoy a long and distinguished life in theatrical, cable and eventual book form.
A succession of approximately four-minute interviews, docu unspools like a suite of variations on the themes of black culture and identity. Filmed against a gray backdrop at Greenfield-Sanders’ home studio in New York, the conversations are presented, Errol Morris-style, in medium closeup, broken only by occasional cuts and archival photographs; neither camera movement nor Mitchell’s voice intervenes to disrupt the powerful sense of eye-to-eye intimacy between speaker and viewer. Result is a fluid, graceful, formally becalmed work that relies almost entirely on its subjects to animate the frame — which they do, effortlessly.
The idea of art as both inspiration and personal mentor recurs throughout “The Black List,” whether it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talking about meeting Miles Davis, former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash delivering an appreciation of Jimi Hendrix or Toni Morrison describing how she was steeped in literature since early girlhood. “Writing is mine,” the Pulitzer-winning novelist declares at one point, and if anything connects the film’s diverse voices, it’s that sense of personally owning one’s individual talents, of excelling without boundaries.
That there are boundaries, of course, is self-evident. Commenting on the relative absence of blacks in her profession, Thelma Golden, curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, dryly recounts how people would assume, upon meeting her, that she worked for Thelma Golden.
With more than a twinge of sadness, Lou Gossett Jr. describes his difficulty finding decent roles after winning an Oscar for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and heralds the great, underappreciated black actor James Edwards. And Marc Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, gravely recalls Hurricane Katrina’s particular toll on the city’s black underclass.
While its subjects never physically interact, “The Black List” does place them in implicit conversation with one another. It would be fascinating to hear what the Rev. Al Sharpton, who dismisses the gangster-rap persona as simply the latest incarnation of Stepin Fetchit or Uncle Tom, would have to say to Sean Combs, who talks about his association with slain hip-hop artist Notorious B.I.G.
Actor-comedians Keenen Ivory Wayans and Chris Rock riff hilariously on the double standards that frequently apply to black representation onscreen. And erotica writer Zane and Faye Wattleton, who was the first black president of Planned Parenthood, voice strong opinions about women’s sexual and reproductive rights.
Docu reveals Greenfield-Sanders’ photography background with beautifully composed images; everyone on camera owes a clear debt to not only d.p. Graham Willoughby, but also the makeup artists for showing them to their best advantage.
Ultimately, this many-sided rumination on the black American experience can’t be boiled down to a single message or idea, which is very much to its credit as well as its point. These are portraits that move, in both senses of the word.